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Kronos Quartet's David Harrington: "The World's Just Going to Have to Get Used to Me"

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Last month, the Kronos Quartet added the Avery Fisher and Polar Music Prizes to their extensive list of awards (which includes one Grammy). They're the only musicians to win both, let alone in one year.

In many ways, they're a more fitting poster child for the iPod generation than most young pop bands: Kronos isn't inhibited by genre, time, place, or even instrument and personnel. Their music is so inclusive that they've played with everyone from David Bowie to Nelly Furtado, Nine Inch Nails to DJ Spooky, Bollywood megastars to yodelers... and even Allen Ginsberg and Noam Chomsky.

For founder and violinist David Harrington, these lifetime achievement awards signal anything but coasting on the group's established success. He'll never stop wanting yet a wilder and more challenging next project.

Who are some artists you've been listening to?
I listen to so many it's hard to keep them straight! I hadn't heard Horses for years and this morning I went back and listened to that album. Patti Smith's a fellow recipient of the Polar Prize and I'm so excited to meet her in August. I think the song "Horses" is incredible. I could imagine jumping into that song, performing it -- I'm going to talk to her about that, see what she thinks. There's also a fantastic recording by Bob Dylan, The Witmark Demons, released about eight months ago. And a song that I've always loved is "Smyrneiko Minoreby" by Marika Papagika, a young woman from Greece, recorded in 1917. We're going to play it at one of our Luminato shows. If you hear the first note that she sings it will put a chill in your back that won't leave for a month!

How are you influenced by other musicians?
Every time you work with other musicians and composers you learn, not only about music. When I think of each of the more than 750 pieces that have been written or arranged for Kronos over the years I know that each one of them brought us something distinctive. I'm continually on the lookout for our next adventure.

What do you look for in a submission?
What I'm looking for is a very personal approach, something that could only be done by that person. Once in a while I'll discover something that I can't let go of. When that happens I know that that music has to become part of our work.

What is your advice for those delving into instrumental, new, or world music?
I've always been a little reluctant to accept advice so I'm even more reluctant to give it, but I can tell you how it works for me: I keep my ears open. Sometimes something comes along that just magnetizes me. It might be only a note. For me, those moments of musical magic are what it's all about. I hope we create several of these for other people.

Sometimes people expect too much of an experience. They think they have to love every minute of this Stravinsky or whatever. But what it really gets down to is there might be one isolated moment within a song that changes you, aligns everything -- even for an instant.

That's why it's great for us to be able to come to Toronto and play so many different programmes, also at a school and library. There is no audience more visceral, honest, and ready to experience something wonderful than kids. When someone comes to your concert you have no idea what effect it might have. Maybe 25 years from now one of them will come to another one of our concerts and they'll say, "Well I heard you when I was seven years old and decided to..."

You started Kronos after one such magical moment.
When I heard Black Angels by George Crumb in August of 1973, I decided that the world was just going to have to get used to me as a musician. I'd grown up playing Mozart, Beethoven. On the other side I listened to stuff like Jimi Hendrix. Crumb's piece brought them together. The world made sense.

But you had as few as two people at your early concerts. How did you keep from getting discouraged?
I knew exactly what I was going to do. That's not to say it's been easy and there haven't been discouraging moments. But you decide on a course and don't step back. I can't think I could have found another experience that would have given me that much confidence and energy.

You've said you want to revitalize instrumental music -- for it to become "cool." Why not just abandon the idea if it is no longer "cool"?
For me, hearing Beethoven's E-flat Major Quartet when I was 12 was one of the coolest things that ever happened! Just because everybody else didn't think it was, as far as I'm concerned that was their problem. I love the idea of quartet-ness. Four people small enough that you can feel the input of each person; you don't need a conductor -- a dictator -- to tell you what to do. The problem isn't the sound of string quartet music. It's that some people have tried to put a fence around it.

If we're doing our job correctly the music should just grab you. That's our responsibility as musicians. The idea that music needs to be protected from people that don't know anything about it is total bullshit!

What's in the future for you?
We're going to record music by Canadian Derek Charke written for us and Tanya Tagaq, the Jimi Hendrix of throat singers. Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Terry Riley are also writing us new pieces. And -- you'll be the first one to hear about it -- my daughter has been recommending this for 20 years and finally, it's going to happen: at Carnegie Hall in 2012 we'll create the foley-studio version of a 'lost episode' of Pee-wee's Playhouse, live on stage!

Kronos is in residency at the Luminato Festival. Highlights include a world premiere of the new version of "Orion," written by Philip Glass for Chinese pipa player Wu Man (June 15); music by indie band The National's Bryce Dessner with Azerbaijani singer-poet Alim Qasimov (June 10); the wild wedding music of Syrian legend Omar Souleyman with Afghan rubâb player Homayun Sakhi (June 11); and everything from Sigur Rós to Requim for a Dream with Toronto's Annex Quartet (free concert June 12). All these international guest artists will be performing in Canada for the first time. www.luminato.com

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